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'Don't restrict yourself to a single field of study'

Strategic communications expert Alana Mann has some solid advice for international students who want to study public relations in Australia
BY Uma Asher |   08-12-2016

Alana Mann is senior lecturer and director of the master’s program in Strategic Public Relations at the University of Sydney. She teaches media studies, public opinion and international relations. Her research is on non-state actors in international politics, with a strong focus on democracy and social justice. During a recent visit to India, she chatted with BrainGain Magazine about her work and shared some advice for students.

Alana Mann (center) of the University of Sydney recently visited New Delhi with her colleagues
Ainslie Bulmer, Director for Academic Planning and International Cooperation in arts and social sciences (left), and
Amanda Sayan, Director of Partnerships, Office of Global Engagement (right)
  1. How did you come to combine your interests in food politics, media, and teaching?

    Having started out as a high-school teacher, and then working in the media, I became frustrated at the absence of news around important issues related to trade, inequality, and global poverty. I did a master’s degree part-time while working at a newspaper. I also started teaching part-time, and realized how much I had missed it. Later I was fortunate to get a position at the University of Sydney which enabled me to teach and complete my PhD. My doctorate took me in the direction of food security and food sovereignty, because I was studying how non-government organizations with few resources get their issues into the media. The media was becoming increasingly corporatized, and it seemed like only big businesses would get their voices heard. My doctorate was on a farmers’ movement called Via Campesina (Spanish for ‘the farmer’s way’), which started in Latin America but has strong roots in India and other countries. These small-scale farmers produce 75% of the world’s food. I was fascinated at how global changes were being presented in their campaigns. My recent research is on how non-state actors – the people’s movements – get involved in policy-making.

     
  2. How does one pitch a difficult concept like food sovereignty?

    The University of Sydney has a strong focus on getting people from different disciplines to work on problems – environment, media and PR, agricultural scientists, business people, experts on trade…. And the communications people are really important, because raising awareness is a challenge, especially given the noise in the digital media landscape.

     
  3. Could you tell us a bit about what the University of Sydney is doing in India?

    We’ve been talking to students and scholars about our approach to studying these issues. I gather public relations is a growing field here. Students in India are intellectually curious, well educated, and maybe because of the diverse print media, there’s an intellectual public sphere here. The interaction with Indian students is electric, because they’re encouraged – as we are in Australia – to debate and challenge the dominant paradigm. In Sydney, too, we’re trying to engage academics in public-facing discussions. This semester they asked academics to go to cafes and bars, and talk about their research to the public. It was terrific, because it made you think about how your research is relevant, how you explain it to people, and how you justify getting research funding.

     
  4. How do you walk into a bar and start telling strangers about your research?

    [Laughter] I’m fortunate that I’m talking about food. Everyone is interested in food! My talk was called “Come grocery-shopping with me”. I told people why they should not shop at the two major retailers – they don’t give farmers a fair price. I had a relatively easy topic; some of my colleagues who were presenting on astrophysics and things like that probably had a bit further to go. It depends who the audience was and how many drinks they had.



     
  5. How do students benefit from university outreach efforts?

    At the University of Sydney, we try to engage students in experiences with the community, industry, and potential employers. It’s important for the university to have that current knowledge that you get from engaging with industry. In a rapidly changing employment landscape, you need to know exactly what employers need.

     
  6. Indian higher education don’t always keep pace with employers’ needs, and forces students to focus narrowly early on. What’s your advice to students to make the most of studying in Australia?

    I teach first-year media students, and I always tell them, we don’t even know what jobs will be out there when you graduate in three or four years. I teach them media theory and journalism theory. We encourage them to get a broadbased understanding of a number of disciplines. Don’t restrict yourself to one field. You might find that you don’t like it. Take courses that offer you the opportunity to pursue a specialization or major. So a media and communications student, for example, may do a second major in something like government, or languages, or a science such as biology, or a business course like marketing – that’s a popular combination. That has made our faculty the number one destination for corporations looking for arts graduates in Australia.

     
  7. So broadbased knowledge makes students more hireable, is that right?

    There are certain attributes and skills that you need to leave with. Communication is a big one, obviously. But also the ability to work in teams, and the ability to see the world and problems from other perspectives, so that you can solve complex problems. At the university, we argue that you need to have a humanities approach even if you’re a scientist, because you need a philosophical understanding of the way people live. That’s where the international experience is really valuable. It’s important for Australian students too. Our diverse student and staff population at the University of Sydney is a real asset for students. That’s also why we want more students from India.

     
  8. Many Indian communications students lack solid training in tech skills. Those are important to learn when you’re at a university with all those facilities. But it seems like you’re saying the old-fashioned skills – to adapt, and work with people – are crucial.

    Yes, exactly. Of course, we do focus on production skills – you learn how to use video and audio, and web development. But most students are adept at those things already. It’s not so much a challenge getting them to understand how to use the equipment in the television studio. The challenge is the questions you ask, the way you frame the issues and present them. It’s about making things meaningful to your audience. And that’s always been the case in the media, and you can’t learn that through knowing how to upload things to the web.

    In the video below, Dr. Susan Banki, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology & Social Policy at the University of Sydney, explains the principles of communication for human rights and social justice

 
 
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